LUSK — Sarah Haugen gave up after losing custody of her 1-year-old daughter. Who did she have to stay clean for?
She was arrested in Feb. 19, 2009, for child endangerment with possession of methamphetamine, and her daughter went to live with the child’s grandmother. It didn’t matter if she used, Haugen told herself. She knew the baby was taken care of.
She was arrested again two years later, then 2½ months pregnant, for violating her probation. She was sentenced to 21 to 42 months at the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk. She gave birth to her son Nov. 5, spent two days in the hospital with him, her ankle shackled to the bed, before her mother picked him up and took him home.
Haugen, 24, says she doesn’t know how to be a mother.
“I haven’t had a child since my daughter was that age, and she’s 4 now,” Haugen said. “I don’t know how to care for a child really.”
But when she gets out in May, she’s going to have to learn. She will probably be his full-time mother again someday.
Haugen’s challenge is not unique. Seventeen women were pregnant when admitted to the prison between 2007 and 2011, including three births in 2010 and two in 2011. It is why the Wyoming Women’s Center wants to give inmate mothers more time with their newborns, up to 18 months for women who qualify. Both houses of the Legislature have approved a $1.01 million capital construction
request that would renovate an unused prison building, turning it into a nursery. It would house inmates and their babies and host overnight stays for children up to 6 years old.
The hope is that fostering an early mother-child bond will give mothers a strong incentive against reoffending after release and help break a cycle of incarceration that can be passed through generations.
“The reality is that the women here will get out of prison, and they will be back in the communities,” said Phil Myer, warden of the Wyoming Women’s Center.
“And we want them to be successful at raising those children so those children don’t repeat the sins of the parents.”
Breaking the cycle
Prison nurseries are an emerging trend in corrections. Eleven other states have them.
Proponents argue that such programs teach critical parenting skills, relieve separation anxiety in children and reduce inmate recidivism — the act of reoffending. It could even save taxpayer money in the long run.
“Because of the successes of nurseries in other parts of the country ... and the research that shows that children who are able to bond with their mothers just do so much better throughout their whole lives, we just decided that this was a priority for us,” said Chesie Lee, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Churches, which has supported a prison nursery at the Wyoming Women’s Center for the past three years.
Critics say prisons are meant for punishment. Taxpayers shouldn’t pay for inmates to care for their children, especially when they are in prison for breaking the law.
“That’s certainly an argument folks will make ... and it’s a valid one, to some extent,” Myer said. “I think it’s akin to what we did when we started locking up people and throwing the key away on folks.”
Proponents say the problem is that women inmates are more likely to be the main caregivers for their children. In Lusk, 47 of its 238 inmates are mothers to 55 children younger than 6 years old. Another 67 inmates are mothers to 134 children ages 6 to 17.
Research shows that children of incarcerated parents suffer separation anxiety, have more problems at school, come into contact with the juvenile justice system earlier in life and may need foster care, all of which, in the long run, can also cost taxpayers.
That’s what happened to Haugen.
Haugen entered the system when she was 7.
She and her sister went to foster care when her mom was arrested for drinking and driving, she said. While her mother worked to get her life back on track, Haugen’s derailed. She started drinking at 13, smoking marijuana at 14, was addicted to methamphetamine before she turned 18 and started smoking crack cocaine at 21.
“Once I got in the system, I stayed in the system,” Haugen said. She figures she’s spent only a year and a half of her life outside a residential treatment facility or group home since she first got in.
In 2004, a 10-year study was completed on the nursery program at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York, Neb. — the longest study of any prison nursery program in the country. The study was published in the Spring 2009 edition of Corrections Compendium.
The study showed that 59 percent of inmates who participated in the program had mothers who had also been incarcerated, precisely the cycle nursery programs hope to break.
Myer has worked in corrections for more than three decades, in both men’s and women’s prisons. He worked for 28 years in the Nebraska Department of Corrections, including at the women’s prison with the nursery program. He remembers that at one time, there was a grandmother, a mother and two daughters all incarcerated at the same time in the Nebraska prison.
“I’m not going to say that it’s commonplace, but you do see it,” he said.
The study also showed a sharp decrease in recidivism in mothers who participated in the program, compared to mothers who did not have the chance.
From 1991 to 1994, before the prison implemented its nursery program, 50 percent of inmates forced to give up their newborn babies returned to the prison within the next 10 years, either for violating parole or committing a new crime, the study found. From 1994 to 2004, inmates who participated in the nursery program had a 16.8 percent recidivism rate, a 33.2 percent decrease.
The recidivism rate for the prison’s overall population was 22.2 percent.
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Wyoming’s Mother and Child program, if approved, will be located in an empty brick building that was formerly used for work release and later as the intensive treatment unit. It was built in 1984 and is located inside a locked fence on the prison.
The $1.01 million request would gut the building and renovate it to fit program needs. The current floor plan calls for 4,216 square feet with 11 rooms — including a dining and meeting area, a play area and/or classroom, a bathroom, inmate rooms for mothers and children, and a kitchen area where mothers and older children could bake together. Some rooms will be double bunked for inmates and infants, others would be used for overnight visits for inmates and their children up to 6 years old.
The program itself hasn’t been developed, but it could look something like this: Women would be allowed to keep their infants for a year to 18 months. They would be required to work during the day and their children would be cared for in the nursery, mimicking life on the outside when mothers have to work to support their families.
“One of our goals is to make this a child-sensitive program,” Myer said. “This will not look like a prison.
“It will really focus on the child so that we can mitigate the things that they suffer from when parents are incarcerated.”
Mothers would be required to take parenting and other classes, as inmates are already required to do. They would have to follow all rules of the prison and get no write-ups for misconduct. Only minimum- security inmates would be eligible and none who have committed any violent crimes including murder, manslaughter, first-degree assaults or robberies, any kind of sexual assault or crimes against a minor.
Myer said 75 to 80 percent of the 17 women who gave birth while incarcerated since 2007 would have qualified for a program designed with the above guidelines. Most women at the prison, he said, are sentenced for lower-risk crimes such as drugs and property crimes.
But a growing number of women are being incarcerated for child endangerment for possession of methamphetamine.
Myer said that women convicted of this crime probably would be allowed into the program, so long as they committed no other crimes that disqualify them.
“That is a situational crime because the meth was present. I understand that women chose to do that and that’s the consequence, but we don’t have methamphetamines available here. We probably would allow inmates with that particular crime to participate,” Myer said.
Katrena Stringham was already in a high-risk group before she was arrested for child endangerment with possession of meth. She had her first child at 13, the baby’s father was 28. She had two more children, each with different fathers.
When she was arrested in October 2010, she was six weeks pregnant with her fourth child. Police found syringes and other drug paraphernalia in her roommate’s purse, in the home where her children lived.
She gave birth on May 18 to a baby girl. Stringham, now 30, has seen her daughter just two times in the visiting room at the Wyoming Women’s Center. She is not allowed to change her diaper, a prison rule because of the fear of smuggling in contraband. There are no car seats allowed, so the baby must be held or must sleep on the table with supervision.
It made it hard to visit with her other children, ages 9 to 16.
“I walked in here and my dad was holding her and, of course, I wanted to see my other three, but I wanted hold my baby, too,” Stringham said. “That day was very hard. When they left, all I could do is cry.”
She didn’t know how to calm her fussy baby until Stringham’s aunt said the baby liked to be walked. Stringham would support a nursery program, even though it’s unclear whether she would have qualified and though she will be released before Wyoming’s is developed.
“I believe it would help us knowing that we can’t backtrack, we can’t slip up. Otherwise, we’ll lose all this and we will come back here and we won’t get to bring that baby back with us next time,” she said.
“To be around all the time, to know which cry is which, it would be awesome.”
In prison, Stringham has become certified to operate a fork lift, she has taken parenting classes and learned things that she says she never knew — like babies develop the most within the first few weeks of pregnancy, and that drug use can affect the fetus even then.
Stringham will be released in June and will return to Casper. She has already lined up counseling groups and will live with her parents, who have guardianship of her oldest three children. Her aunt is the guardian of her baby. She wants to get a job, pursue higher education and, eventually, raise her children.
Something to work for
When she was using, Haugen gave her daughter a bottle or some food when she needed it. That was about all. She’s never cooked a meal for her family, she said.
After her first arrest, her daughter went to live with her grandmother. Haugen remembers how she felt when the girl wouldn’t reach out to her, even when she was hurt or upset. The girl reached for her grandmother.
“When she didn’t want me, it made me want to give up completely,” Haugen said.
Her daughter now lives in Missouri. Haugen writes to her at least once a week while she is in prison and hangs her daughter’s drawings the wall of her cell.
Now, she concentrates on getting out and becoming a mother to her son.
A nursery program, she said, would not just help her, but it would help him too. She’d learn how to care for a baby with support from staff in a sober environment. Her parenting classes teach her about nutrition, boundaries and setting good examples. Knowing his smiles, watching him crawl, would give her something to work for, a reason to stay off the drugs.
“That bonding experience is going to be hard because he doesn’t really know me,” Haugen said of the day that she will eventually become a full-time mother to her son.
“They are quick to forget.”